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Dairy Industry: Got Ethics?

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Last night, ABC News reported on the results of an investigation by Mercy for Animals (MFA) into inhumane practices within the dairy industry. Chief investigative reporter Brian Ross and producer Anna Schecter presented a hard-hitting indictment of standard industry practices, such as lifelong confinement and tail docking and dehorning without anesthetic. HSUS California senior state director Jennifer Fearing spoke up for the interests of the cows and made points that the dairy industry representatives had an impossible time refuting. In fact, the industry's responses were callous and hollow, even after they saw unmistakable footage of abuse.

The ABC report showed video footage, recorded by MFA, of tail docking that would make anyone concerned about the well-being of animals cringe. Perplexingly, the dairy industry defended this practice despite the fact that even the industry-friendly American Veterinary Medical Association rightfully opposes it (PDF). And the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, with many of its members employed by the dairy industry, acknowledges that the procedure is unnecessary and painful. But, remarkably, the group does not support state or federal legislation to do away with the cruel practice. I've personally asked them to get involved and stop this practice, but they've refused.

A few livestock industry groups, including the California Cattlemen's Association and the California Farm Bureau, supported HSUS-sponsored legislation, introduced by California Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter), to ban this practice. The dairy industry was at the table in California, worked with us on the bill's language, and ultimately helped to secure its passage. Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the bill in October, and the top dairy state in the nation became the first state to end this needless cruelty. The agriculture industry there deserves credit for stepping up and not being a bystander--or even worse, an opponent--as the major animal welfare issues in the industry are confronted.

But there is a circling of the wagons among so many other state and national livestock industry trade groups. As long as they stand in the way of morally obvious and science-based reforms, they will continue to be defined by their most deplorable actions. They may forestall legislative action for a while, but they will in the process turn off millions of American consumers who expect them to act responsibly. In the end, my guess is, they'll not succeed in ultimately blocking legislative action that makes common sense.

It took our investigations into the abuse of downer cows to prompt the federal government to ban the slaughtering of crippled and sick adult cows unable to walk. The agribusiness industry fought us for 20 years on that issue, losing billions in the process and exposing consumers to life-threatening food safety risks. If you remember, a downer with Mad Cow Disease was processed for food in 2003 and then five years later, The HSUS exposed the abuse of spent downer cows at the Westland/Hallmark plant, prompting the largest meat recall in American history. And our latest investigation showing abuse of veal calves at a Vermont slaughter plant revealed a horrific end for these young male calves--some just days old--discarded by the dairy industry.

There seems to be so little leadership in the agriculture community on animal welfare. It is both baffling and inexcusable. It's as if they do not care about the views of consumers or retailers, and they'll just mistreat animals unless they are forced to stop. We'll redouble our efforts to expose these abuses, and we are grateful that ABC News and Mercy for Animals shined a spotlight upon cruelty on the farm.

This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.

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